By Nikhil Pahwa and Aroon Deep

On Monday morning, newspapers across the country were splashed with front page ads for the “Paytm Mini App Store“, inviting developers to join the company “to build India’s Digital Revolution, together!” The problem: it’s not really an app store — the Mini App Store is a collection of services that open in a browser inside Paytm’s own app. App stores, by definition, are distribution mechanisms for independent software called apps, and allow users to install apps locally on a device, rather than go through another app to open them.

Also, this isn’t even new: it seems to be just a rebranding of Paytm Mini Programs, which was launched in July.

How Paytm “Mini App Store” works

Paytm’s “mini app store” is an idea that other Indian apps have already tried; JustDial advertised a bundle of apps inside its own app as a way to reduce app clutter, and PhonePe, a Paytm competitor, has a similar service called PhonePe Switch, which works nearly identically, right down to pre-filling user information that the company already has.

Indeed, Paytm just seems to be loading the mobile browser version of the apps it launched with, like 1mg, Domino’s Pizza, and Decathlon. Here’s a comparison of the Mini App Store and PhonePe Switch (note that we couldn’t show much of Paytm’s interface due to restrictions on screenshots and screen recording on the app):

An “app” on the Paytm Mini App Store (left), and on PhonePe Switch.

While the Mini App Store itself does not allow screenshots, a preview on the Paytm listing some of the available services does:

Source: Paytm app

As expected, none of the apps seem tailor-made for Paytm — they all seem to be loading as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) for users who don’t have the apps installed. The store interface itself lists the apps and some offers like discounts on purchases. There is also a list of categories in the bottom, like Financial Services, Education, Shopping, and Food Ordering. In most cases we reviewed, the “apps” were identical to the mobile web version of the service. As such, there’s little difference between going on the website of the app and visiting it on Paytm, except maybe that Paytm — like PhonePe — autofills users’ details.

In response to a query from MediaNama, Kiran Jonnalagadda, the co-founder of technology community HasGeek, said that “From a preliminary analysis of the mini apps, they appear to be websites accessed via Paytm’s servers. This is similar to how Facebook’s Free Basics operated, and has the same security problem: Paytm can read everything the user accesses within the app.”

“This is stretching the definition of an app”, he added. A Progressive Web App is essentially a website with an app launcher icon, and its own place in the recent apps stack. Paytm’s mini apps can only be accessed from inside the Paytm app, and don’t appear in the system recent apps list. So, at best, they are just sections of an existing app. That said, having a gallery inside Paytm is a great discovery resource for these businesses, so it’s not entirely a bad idea.”

The politics of the situation: Paytm vs Google

The politics of the situation here is that this is Paytm throwing down the gauntlet to Google, that it is labeling something as an app store within its application, while Google does not allow apps from the Play Store to have app stores.

We’re reminded of a situation in 2015, when Paytm launched affiliate promotion of apps within the Paytm app, and its press release mistakenly called it an app store. The links allowed users to download the app from the Play Store and the iOS App Store. A fuming Vijay Shekhar Sharma (the founder of Paytm) called journalists then – including both the author of that story and the editor of this publication. His question: even though the press release had mistakenly called the initiative an app store, how could we have carried that story. He was right. The reason for that angry call? VSS was worried that the Paytm app would be removed from the Google Play Store for calling that an app store. There are no third party app stores on the Google Play store.

In 2020, things have changed: VSS, last Tuesday, set up a Zoom call with 56 founders to discuss lobbying the Indian government against Google’s monopoly in the Indian app store space, and its imposition of a 30% fee. Google, probably worried about the strong backlash from Indian founders, has deferred the rolling out of that policy till 2022. A part of the policy was also Google’s move to allow other application stores from January 1st. By announcing a “Mini App Store”, taking out front page advertisements to promote them, and announcing a Paytm Mini App Developer Conference for October 8, inviting more developers to distribute their apps on Paytm with no payment charges, Paytm seems to be challenging Google. What will Google do? Google has said that in Android 12 (next years release), it will “make it even easier for people to use other app stores on their devices”, while not directly saying whether third party app stores will be allowed on the Play Store.

Also remember that just a couple of days ago, VSS got on a Microsoft Teams call with the MEITY Secretary Ajay Sawhney, along with 30-40 other founders, to discuss issues related to the dominance of Google in India. The Ministry has asked founders to submit a document detailing issues related to the dominance of big tech, and Google in India.

VSS’s anger against Google has also partly been fueled by Google temporarily banning Paytm from the Play Store for violating gambling policies by showing surrogate ads of its own real-money Paytm First Games app, which is not available on the Play Store. “Google thinks this is gambling, or a casino, this is bullshit of a different degree,” Sharma had fumed in September. In 2018, Paytm had also raised concerns around user privacy against Google Pay, a significant competitor to Paytm’s core payments business.